There’s a scene in ‘Push’ where Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, visits the home of a woman in Chile. The house sits atop a leafy hill and has the marks of being well lived in for decades. The woman looks despondent as she shows Leilani about, pointing out the window. Behind her, you can hear the roar of building work. It’s so loud that the camera seems to shake. The source of the noise is revealed a few seconds later: development work. Builders are putting up luxury flats.
Push by Fredrik Gertten had its Irish premier at The Mac on the 11th June. It’s a film about housing, rising rents and urban development. ‘Push’ a reference to residents being pushed out of cities because they’re becoming unaffordable. “We’re in the way,” one Toronto resident says. He and his wife are struggling to afford to live in the neighbourhood they’ve called home for most of their lives. Their building has been bought over by a corporation which has, in turn, raised the rent. Despite the high prices, the new landlord is failing to carry out its basic repair obligations. It’s the same story in another house in the city. One resident hasn’t had hot water for months.
This isn’t just about gentrification but global finance and real estate as a commodity, the latter part of an industry worth £217 trillion. As the story travels from Toronto, New York, Seoul, Chile and London, there’s a common narrative: large, shadowy companies moving in and buying up properties, renovating them and pushing the rent up. In one scene a local activist takes the camera crew round to a “dead area” of Notting Hill. The houses are worth £20 million but lie completely vacant. The properties are assets for people overseas and nothing more. These scenes are played alongside images of Grenfell Tower. Some former residents still haven’t been rehoused into permanent accommodation, years after the tragedy.
What’s striking about ‘Push’ is how eerily relevant it is to Belfast. The city doesn’t have “dead zones” but it’s becoming a hot bed for development, new offices and luxury flats. There was controversy recently over “Tribeca Belfast,” a Castlebrooke Investments project in the Cathedral Quarter. The company promises high end accommodation, retail units and restaurants in the heart of the city. “Live where life happens,” says its glossy marketing video where white, middle class people smile and laugh in the Harp Bar. When Belfast City Council debated the issue, it only took issue with the name.
Belfast is well known for being an affordable place to live. Our wages our low, we say, but it’s cheap. That’s starting to change. In August 2018, the Belfast Telegraph reported that rents in the private rented sector are rising at three times the rate of the national average. It also reported that rents had increased by 4.5% in the same year. It’s worth nothing that Local Housing Allowance, the amount of benefit payable through Housing Benefit and Universal Credit has been frozen since 2015/2016.
A number of my friends are starting to have real difficulty renting in Belfast. It’s becoming more expensive and competitive. A few have been served notices to quit and discovered that their landlord is advertising a higher rent. Gatekeeping seems to have increased. A friend told me recently that she had to supply a credit check before she could take on her tenancy.
One friend’s landlord isn’t renewing their lease because he’ll get more money putting the house up on Airbnb. Airbnb is nothing new but it’s only in the past few years that I’ve started hearing about it in Belfast. People are making a fortune from the tourist boom. Air Bnb is being welcomed in many quarters but it’s been argued that it leads to increased rents and less available housing. While cities like Barcelona have strategies in place to deal with the company, Belfast doesn’t.
There isn’t just an issue with housing but planning as well. In 2016 the residents of Packenham Street in South Belfast objected to student flats being built beside their homes. In 2017 residents of Sandy Row were disappointed when Belfast City Council voted to build a Transport Hub that would remove the Boyne Bridge. In May this year residents of the Markets challenged the decision to grant planning permission for a £55m Office Development beside their homes.
All the above issues are very different, but they all have a common thread: inner city communities adapting to unwanted change in a different Belfast.
There’s no denying it, the city is changing. high rise buildings, luxury apartments and office blocks seem to be going up everywhere. You can’t walk without bumping into a new hotel.
Belfast and Northern Ireland is in dire need of investment and regeneration. You have to wonder if we’ve got our priorities right. There are thousands of people on the waiting list for social housing in Northern Ireland. One company is building factory-made homes to try and alleviate the housing shortage. In 2017 it was reported that homelessness in Northern Ireland was up by 32% in five years. A recent survey shows that 79% of young people in Northern Ireland are concerned about affordable housing.
In a panel after ‘Push’, architect Ciaran Mackel pointed out that there is a huge drive to bring people in to Belfast. The problem is that the flats and apartments being built aren’t for families but for wealthy, young professionals. Elfie Seymour from PPR was at pains to point out that the people who already live in Belfast want affordable housing. The #buildhomesnow movement is pushing for social housing in Mackie’s and the Sirocco Works.
The problem with development in Northern Ireland is that it is linked to normalisation and the move away from violence. As Conor McFall points out, “The attachment of such developments to the peace process has meant that it was sold, and generally accepted as, all in the name of progress.” We are so grateful for new things, having what other cities have, that we forget to take a closer look. That needs to change.
As we walked home from ‘Push’, my partner and I passed a number of empty office buildings and developments in progress. Our journey from The Mac to the Holylands took twenty minutes but we passed five or six people sleeping on the streets.
“Live where life happens.” We already do.
*the author would like to it make very clear that this article reflects her personal view and does not represent the opinion of her employer.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.